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Spring has Sprung

On a recent visit to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the witch hazel was just beginning to bloom, the magnolia trees were budding, but in the herbarium staging area, it was still spring training.

By | April 25, 2005

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Barbara Alper Courtesy of Brooklyn Botanic Garden

On a recent visit to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the witch hazel was just beginning to bloom, the magnolia trees were budding, but in the herbarium staging area, it was still spring training. Empty counters topped with dissecting microscopes sat waiting for the onslaught of plant specimens that April through October would bring. For the time being, there were just the piles of dried plants from past years, separated, of course, by metropolitan New York City newspapers – what easier way is there to date specimens? – and Gerry Moore, a botanist with allergies.

The middle of a densely-populated borough may seem a strange place to study nature, even if the Garden is tucked into a corner of 526-acre Prospect Park. That's part of the point, and it drives much of the research there. "Most people go to the forests to study plants," says vice president for science Steven Clemants, who was hired to work on local flora and has now been at the Garden for 16 years. "We take advantage of the area to try to understand the impact of the urban environment on flora."

Studying only those plants in the Garden wouldn't tell more than a fraction of the story, since the species there are not particularly representative of what's growing in New York City, says Clemants. For a bigger picture view, in 1990 the Garden created the New York Metropolitan Area Flora Project, a growing database, freely available online at http://www.bbg.org/sci/nymf, of 400 species and 12,000 citations. The 20-year project is an attempt to revive work on plants of the northeast US.

The study of such flora has been in decline for the past 50 years following the first publication of Gray's Manual of Botany, Clemants says, so there have already been some surprises. The news is good for some species, and bad for others. New York City is a haven for immigrants, so it's no surprise that the top gainers are introduced species. Clemants, Moore, and colleague Angela Steward found that Celastrus scandens – commonly known as American bittersweet – has been losing out to Celastrus orbiculata – commonly known as Oriental bittersweet.1 More than two dozen members of the Ericaceae (blueberry) family – the exception being one, Rhododendron maximum – haven't done well in the area for a number of reasons.2 Changes in soil pH, due to cement runoff, lead to changes in the microrhizal population. Deer – which Clemants says is the most invasive organism in the area – have had an effect as well, as has the loss of wetlands.

In the past, New York City and kudzu went together like New Orleans and subways, but there's some of the wild-growing plant in downtown Brooklyn, notes Clemants. Urban environments act as "heat islands:" On an August afternoon, downtown Manhattan can be 7°F warmer than surrounding areas. Predicting future problems may mean keeping an eye on species such as kudzu.

The Garden is also extending its knowledge base backward in time, by entering its 250,000-specimen herbarium into an online freely accessible database. On a guided tour of the herbarium, a visitor can find ivory nuts collected in 1921, a rare orchid from Queens County picked in 1864, and the facility's oldest-known specimen, from 1800.

Even in the shadow of the herbarium and a 2,000-volume rare book collection, botanists are constantly updating their approaches to bridge the molecular with traditional taxonomy. Mark Tebbitt, whose main interest is begonias – Timber Press will publish his Begonias: Cultivation, Identification, and Natural History, in October – recently published the first of a series of sequencing papers about Hillebrandia species.3 His work, however, also includes papers such as "Taxonomy of Begonia longifola Blume (Begoniaceae) and related species,"4 a more traditional description filled with illustrations of leaves and fruit of various species. "The current generation of botanists is predominantly molecular," says Tebbitt. "We're starting to see a balance between molecular and traditional methods."

Sue Pell, a botanist who started at the Garden late last month, studies Anacardiaceae – not a family that botanists are itching to research. "There aren't a lot of people who want to work on poison ivy," says Clemants, even though its diversity – the family also includes cashews, mangoes, and pistachios – could prove fruitful. Most poison ivy in the New York City area is a vine. In Minnesota, it's a free-standing shrub.

Some of the Garden's work is published in a peer-reviewed open access journal it supports, Urban Habitats http://www.urbanhabitats.org, but Clemants wants to make sure its efforts go beyond an academic pursuit: "It's nice to present data and do taxonomy, but what can we do with this?" The Garden has teamed up with Rutgers University in New Jersey to create the Center for Restoration Ecology. Clemants is particularly interested in restoring brownfields, areas designated as contaminated by hazardous substances or pollutants. Such areas are not unlike the site of the Garden, which was an ash heap until the late 1800s. "I don't think people are giving up on the urban as an environment."

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